The Perfect 4-Day Itinerary for Rio de Janeiro

by Dottie

White-sand beaches, colorful favelas stacked on the hillsides, Carnaval, and bossanova. Rio de Janeiro has long captured the imaginations of travelers from around the world. Here are the best things to do to experience the best of it.

Rio de Janeiro has long captured the imaginations of travelers from around the world, evoking daydreams of white-sand beaches, lush green mountains, colorful favelas stacked on the hillsides, Carnaval, and, of course, beautiful, bathing-suit-clad people.

It’s a lot of hype, and Rio lives up to it. It’s easily one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with a magical blend of urban life and nature that is hard to find anywhere else. Whether you prefer lounging on picturesque beaches with a caipirinha in hand, soaking up local culture, working up a sweat on a good hike, or dancing the night away with strangers, Rio has you covered.

Ready to see Rio for yourself? In this guide, we provide you with the best things to do in Rio de Janeiro. The post is organized as a 4-day itinerary, but you can extend or accelerate your visit as you please.

4-Day Itinerary: The Best Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro

Day 1: Beach day! Bike, SUP, and lounge

Rio de Janeiro is home to most enchanting urban beaches on the planet. The most famous are Copacabana and Ipanema, though Leblon — located on the same stretch and slightly lesser-known — is stunning as well and offers views of the Rocinha favela in the hills.

Here’s how to enjoy Rio’s beaches to the fullest:

Bike Rio’s Iconic Boardwalk

Rio’s iconic black-and-white-tiled boardwalk runs along Leblon, Ipanema, and Copacabana beach. Riding a bike is the best way to get the lay of the land and locate a beach you want to spend the day in.

Renting a bike is easy. As you walk around the city, you’ll notice orange bike stations everywhere — it shouldn’t be difficult to find one near you. These are bikes from Bike Rio, or Bike Itaú, Rio de Janeiro’s largest bike-share system. To unlock a bike, download the Bike Itaú app, register your credit card, and choose a plan that best works for you and your trip.

Voila! You can now explore Rio’s beaches as you please.

Go Stand-up Paddleboarding at Copacabana Beach

Copacabana beach is framed by views of lush green hills and upscale apartments, and stand-up paddleboarding is a fun, leisurely way to take it all in.

To get a stand-up paddleboard, visit the vendors who set up their tents right in the sand and they will provide you with a board and instructions to get in the water right away.

Best things to do in Rio | 4-day Itinerary | Paddleboard in Copacabana
Lenza living his best life.

Lounge at Your Beach of Choice

The great thing about a beach day in Rio (other than the stunning beach itself, of course) is that you don’t have to go prepared at all. No towel? No beach chairs? No food and beverages? No worries. You can get everything you need right on the beach!

Within a couple of minutes of arriving at Leblon, we were settled in comfy beach chairs with ice-cold caipirinhas in hand. Vendors occasionally come by offering charcoal-grilled cheese on sticks (a Brazilian beach specialty), fresh coconuts, and more cocktails. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Day 2: See Rio’s Most Famous Sites

This is your day to see all the tourist sights of Rio!

Catch Morning Views at Christ the Redeemer

Christ the Redeemer is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a must-see on any visit to Rio.

Go early to catch the morning views! We recommend catching the train, which will take you through the Atlantic Forest and to the top of Corcovado Mountain — a fun experience in itself.

When there, take the challenge of getting a photo with Cristo Redento without anyone in it and ogle at the views below.

Best things to do in Rio | 4-day Itinerary | Rio view | Christ the Redeemer view

Escadaria Selarón (Selarón Steps)

Escadaria Selaron are a popular tourist destination that you may have seen in Snoop Dogg’s music video for the song “Beautiful.” The 215 tiled steps, a project started by Chilean artist Jorge Selarón in 1990, connects the Lapa neighborhood to Santa Teresa. At first, Selarón sourced and painted many of the tiles on his own, but as his work became more well-known people would send or bring him tiles.

For a fun souvenir to take home, get your photo taken on the Selarón Steps and get it printed on a tile!

Best things to do in Rio | 4-day Itinerary | Escadaria Selaron

Day 3: Day Trip to Cabo Frio

Cabo Frio is located about two hours’ driving from Rio de Janeiro and has some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.

If you feel comfortable navigating Rio traffic, I recommend getting a rental car so you have the flexibility to come and go as you please. If not, you can find tours like this very reasonable one on Expedia that offers round trip transportation to-and-from Rio de Janeiro, visits to Cabo Frio’s best beaches, and a boat excursion.

Best things to do in Rio | 4-day Itinerary | Prainhas do Pontal do Atalaia | Cabo Frio

If you go on your own, here are some excellent things to do:

Relax at One of Cabo Frio’s Many Beaches

You’ll have no shortage of beaches to choose from in Cabo Frio. Praia do Forte is the area’s main beach and features a lively boardwalk. We loved our day at Prainhas do Pontal do Atalaia, a small beach flanked by cliffs that requires you to go slightly off-road to get to.

Like in Rio de Janeiro proper, you don’t have to bring anything with you to the beach. Right away, we were set up with beach chairs in a prime spot and ice-cold caipirinhas. Hungry? Order grilled meats and have it delivered to you without having to leave your seat. Brazilians really know how to enjoy the beach.

Best things to do in Rio | 4-day Itinerary | Prainhas do Pontal do Atalaia | Cabo Frio, Rio de Janeiro
Prainhas do Pontal do Atalaia

Go on a Boat Trip

Any trip to Cabo Frio isn’t complete without a fun boat trip! Local providers like Camp Tur and Guga Tour will take you on excursions to nearby islands and beaches you can only get to by water.

Best things to do in Rio | 4-day Itinerary | Cabo Frio

Buy Brazilian Swimwear at Rua dos Biquinis

Brazilian bikinis (and Brazilian girls in bikinis) are famous for a reason! They are freakin’ beautiful.

That’s why Rua dos Biquinis, or bikini street, is a destination in its own right. With hundreds of swimwear shops one right next to the other, you’ll find high-end bikinis, budget bikinis, and everything in between. Don’t be afraid to show a little cheek 😉

Optional: Stay the night in Buzios

Buzios is a small fishing village turned glamorous beach destination. You’ll find beautiful beaches there, as you’d expect, as well as high-end restaurants, shopping, and nightlife.

Day 4: Hike & Take in Rio’s Famous Views

Hike Morro de Urca

Best things to do in Rio | 4-day Itinerary | Morro de Urca
A friend we made hiking Morro de Urca

Hiking Morro de Urca was one of our favorite things that we did in Rio. It takes about 40 minutes to get to the top and is a fairly exerting uphill climb, but the views and wildlife sightings make it well worth it. Plus, it gets you about halfway to Sugarloaf. More tips on that coming below.

Best things to do in Rio | 4-day Itinerary | Peak of Morro de Urca | Rio de Janeiro View
View from the peak of Morro de Urca.

Visit Sugarloaf

Sugarloaf is a distinctive addition to Rio’s skyline, and a trip to the top offers sweeping 360-views of the city below.

Tip for Getting to Sugarloaf: The cable car was not running during our visit to Rio so we simply hiked up Morro de Urca then made our way over to the viewpoint opposite of Sugarloaf’s main peak. They are located very close to one another, and though it was a bit of a walk, it felt manageable — even in the flip-flops I was wearing.

When cable cars are running, however, you can catch one from the ground station in Urca, which stops at Morro de Urca first before reaching Sugarloaf. There are also options where you can do a mix of cable car and hiking. This guide explains all your options for getting to Sugarloaf.

At the end of the day, how you explore is completely up to you!

Best things to do in Rio | 4-day Itinerary | Sugarloaf | View from Sugarloaf
Views from the smaller Sugarloaf peak.

Grab a Snack From Bar Urca & Watch the Sunset From the Sea Wall Across the Street

Follow in Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps! Grab a seafood stew or Brazilian pastry from Bar Urca then head to the sea wall across to street to watch the sunset while you eat your food. The most relaxing way to end a day spent on your feet.

Best things to do in Rio | 4-day Itinerary | Bar Urca Seawall
Views from the sea wall.

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